How do I determine what type of press is best for my print project?

Answered by Stephen Beals, Digital Pre-Press manager and industry writer

How do I determine what type of press to use -- sheetfed, web, DI (direct imaging) or digital -- for my print projects? Is it based upon quantity to be printed and number of pages?

If there were a definitive answer to this question, the life of estimators would be much easier. Alas, there are too many variables to give a blanket answer.

Presstek, the largest manufacturer of imaging heads for DI (direct imaging) presses has done several studies on the question. The results from one source, not surprisingly, find that DI presses can be the most efficient solutions for a much wider range of print jobs than generally thought. Rough estimates indicate that "copier" type ink-jet and toner solutions are best for 1 to 250 copies, DI solutions are best for 150 to perhaps 1,500 (some would argue 2,500), sheetfed offset for 2,500 to 99,000 and web for 100,000 or more. Gravure could come into play for those million run jobs.

But please don’t take those numbers too literally! If you asked ten printers to come up with the best quantities per type of equipment, I'm sure you'd get ten different answers. A printer might have free press time on a DI press and prefer to run a 5000 run on that unit. Press availability can have a huge impact on a printer’s decision as to what press to put a job on. And, of course print quality is a factor. A 100 copy job that needs to be offset quality may need to be run on a DI press rather than a cheaper toner printing device. A very large run job that needs to be top quality or need special spot color, varnish or other treatments might need to be put on a sheetfed press even though a web press would be cheaper.

Many presses in the printer’s arsenals don’t comply with the typical “rules of thumb.” Presses have gotten very specialized these days. There are six and seven (and more) color sheetfed presses that can apply spot color, varnish and/or coating all in one pass. Some have built-in dryers or perfecting capabilities that can substantially increase efficiency. There are very wide format sheetfed offset presses that can print four over four in one pass at speeds close to web presses. Many of the newer presses accept digital files called CIP3 that allow for automatic ink fountain set up based on the actual plate image, which can cut makeready time enough to make a real impact on the bottom line, particularly for short-run work.

To make a better decision, it’s important to know exactly what equipment your print vendors have on the floor and what types of work their equipment is best suited for.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at
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